Thursday, March 6, 2008

Reflections on the Year of Living Biblically

I started this blog in January to document the growth of my beard, as inspired by the book I taught for a Sunday school class.

I originally thought I'd have a hard time dragging the material out over an 8 week span, but as it turns out, I took it slowly and used each class as an occasion to ponder some of the questions raised in the book.

A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire, decided to spend a year trying to follow every rule in the Bible as literally as possible. His previous book, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, consisted of him reading the encyclopedia from A to Z, so this was obviously another stunt book. Jacobs grew up as a very secular Jew. As he notes in both books, he is Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian, which is to say, not very. So his approach to scripture came from that of a secular Jew -- much more mindful of the Old Testament than the new. Of course, the Old Testament also includes the bulk of the 'rules' so that worked out pretty well for him. This approach also appealed to me since one of the reasons I picked up the book had to do with a question I've long pondered. That is, how should a thoughtful Christian approach the Old Testament? How is it that certain fundamentalist types can point at passages in Leviticus to justify mistreatment of homosexuals, but completely fail to mention the passage on the very next page that bans the wearing of mixed fibers? Why is it okay to hammer a copy of the Ten Commandments on your lawn but completely ignore the laws that come immediately after those ten? Shouldn't it be all or nothing as far as Old Testament rules are concerned?

Of course, most modern Jews don't even follow all the laws in the Bible, and most of those for good reason. But there are still plenty of things in there that could potentially be followed but are instead conveniently ignored. So, I hoped that following Jacobs' journey through biblical literalism could help me grasp the essential dichotomy between Testaments. During the class, I basically traced Jacobs' adventures, sometimes just discussing what happened but frequently stopping to try to discuss the larger questions his actions brought up. In the end, we were able to decide, much like Jacobs did, that it is impossible to follow the Bible literally. Everyone interprets the Bible. It's part of the beauty of the book. It's not a static rule book. It's a way for God to speak to you, not a flat recording of God's actions in the past.

Jacobs didn't end up becoming religious after his year, but he did become more aware of the power of giving thanks and also learned to appreciate, I think, the difficulty and power involved with making our own decisions, with having free will. When he stopped living a life of trying to follow a list of over 700 rules, he felt overwhelmed with the many choices he had to make in the course of a day. It can be paradoxically freeing to be bound by rules.

It's a fairly light book, an easy read, but if you approach it thoughtfully, it can really raise some interesting questions. And it explains that ban on mixed fibers -- well, it explains it as much as anyone can explain it nowadays.

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